Screens are the polar opposite of what one may consider being mindfulness-promoting. So it came as a surprise to me when two of Wirecutter’s favorite meditation apps, Headspace and Calm, both launched video streaming services in the last year. Netflix’s Headspace Guide to Meditation and HBO Max’s A World of Calm both claim to give sleep-inducing advantages. The companies behind the applications, on the other hand, both provide sleep meditation classes and advertise themselves as meditation and sleep aids. As a result, I was curious how their TV episodes would perform as pre-bed streaming.
I’ve heard the warnings about watching TV before going to bed, as have most people. Despite this, the siren song of 30 Rock frequently triumphs over the introductory physics book I promised myself I’d read at the end of a hard day. (I suddenly learned that I don’t know how gravity works.) And I’m not alone in my lack of understanding of physics or my awful nocturnal habits. According to a 2011 research conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, 86 percent of respondents (PDF) used their screens in the hour before going to bed (and this number is likely higher now that tablets and phones have become even more ubiquitous). However, new research suggests that the blue light emitted by computer displays is harmful to our sleep health, causing difficulty falling asleep and disturbing our circadian rhythms. Even if you find it easy to fall asleep while watching TV, this may not be beneficial to your overall sleep quality (such as how deep your slumber is or how often you wake up at night).
The producers considered the contradiction of using screens for relaxation, according to Chris Advansun, Calm’s head of Sleep Stories and a writer/producer on A World of Calm: “Television for a lot of people can be a place of really gripping storytelling, and really racy and even anxiety-inducing news and information and entertainment.” And what we’ve done is given that environment a breath of new air.”
True, Tranquil’s episodes are noticeably more, well, calm than most other programming: Every episode has a well-known actor speaking softly and reassuringly over magnificent images of the cosmos or the ocean. Oscar Isaac’s soothing voice narrates a languid and tensionless tale about noodles in “Noodles,” the series’ sixth episode. Before a lengthy underwater picture of softly cooking noodles rolls across the screen, we witness chef Mutsuko Soma twisting strands of dough around her fingers—flour falling off them in a close-up, delicate as snow— There is no escalating action, no climax, and no stress in each episode of the series. Every episode of Netflix’s Headspace Guide to Meditation, meanwhile, begins with colorful animations teaching the history or theory of meditation, followed by a 10-minute guided meditation, all narrated by Headspace creator Andy Puddicombe, who has a calming British accent.
This type of information isn’t entirely new. David Attenborough’s deep baritone has soothed millions of viewers alongside wildlife films for decades. However, the fact that these shows are being promoted as quiet retreats from reality indicates what viewers are looking for, especially during a stressful time when many of us are spending more time at home. Although some individuals use television to binge-watch or distract themselves, it can also be used for relaxation, inspiration, and education, according to Morgan Selzer, head of content for Headspace Studios’ Expansion Channels.
According to Dr. Jan Van den Bulck, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies the impact of media on sleep, depending on who you are, the relaxing aspect may make these shows stronger soporifics than others. Though blue light plays a part in keeping people awake, Van den Bulck believes the emotional response to what they’re seeing is equally important: “If you check the news right before bed and it disturbs you, it’s the fact that you’re angry that will keep you awake, not necessarily the brief exposure to light, though that could be a contributing effect.” However, Van den Bulck recognizes that different people feel stress in various ways—noodles may be relaxing for one person, but they may provoke animosity for someone attempting to limit carbs.
Van den Bulck further pointed out that, aside from the content’s excitement, another aspect of pre-bed viewing that prevents us from falling asleep is simply inability to stop watching. “It takes a lot of self-control to say, ‘Okay, I genuinely need sleep,’ since sleeping half an hour less than planned doesn’t seem like a big thing to most of us.” However, if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, finding out whether Jon Snow died or not is a major thing.” It’s difficult to resist binge-watching an entire series and staying up until the wee hours of the morning, especially given most streaming platforms are programmed to automatically play the next episode of a show within seconds of the previous one concluding. (Van den Bulck suggests altering your account’s settings to disable the autoplay feature, which at least means you’ll have to choose whether or not to watch the next episode.)
Although none of these shows helped me fall asleep any better than a 30 Rock episode, it was easier to close my laptop on their content than on Liz Lemon’s hilarity-spouting visage. No one would advise you to move your TV into your bedroom if you have trouble sleeping. However, if you watch TV before bedtime anyhow, these shows may help you change a bad habit into a somewhat better one. And if you don’t have one, I have a fantastic physics book that you can borrow.
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Lyna Patel, writer and avid reader with a love for exploring the human experience through my writing. I believe that writing is not just about putting words on a page, it's about capturing the essence of what it means to be human. I strive to create stories that are both honest and authentic, that reveal the beauty and complexity of the human experience in all its forms. I believe that writing has the power to connect us with others, to bring us closer together, and to help us understand ourselves and the world around us.